Hamster Care & FAQs

The information provided here will hopefully answer your questions around taking care of your pet Hampster, including: why they don’t sleep at night, setting up their cage, and how to handle your hamster. There’s more information on the care of exotic pets and small animals on our Exotic Services Page.
If you live in the Colorado Springs area we hope you’ll consider Dublin Animal Hospital in choosing a veterinarian and help in getting answers to your concerns. You can call us at 719-593-1336.
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Before getting a Hamster

Is a Hamster Right For You?

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

For many people, a hamster’s downright cuteness puts her at the top of their list of potential pets. But this companion critter has more than just a pretty face–she’s got more than a few requirements that need to be met in order for her to be happy and healthy. Read on to find out if you have what it takes to be a hamster caretaker.

While scoping out hamsters, you may have noticed that some are larger than others. It’s not that the smaller ones are younger–most likely they’re different species. The most common are Syrian hamsters. These guys are about six inches long, and may have white, tan, orange-brown or gray markings; their average lifespan is 2-3 years. The most important thing you need to know about Syrians is that they are solitary by nature and MUST live on their own. That means one to a cage–NO exceptions!

Two- to three-inch dwarf hamsters, on the other hand, love to be with members of their own kind. If you want to keep members of this species, you must get at least a pair. Same-sex siblings are ideal, especially if you get them when they are young. These animals have an average lifespan of 1-2 years. Some say that dwarf hamsters aren’t as friendly as Syrians, and their small size makes them extra-delicate. For these reasons, most experts recommend Syrians for first-timers.

We’ve heard of many owners concerned because their hamster sleeps so much during the day, while others worry because their pets are up all night, running on the exercise wheel. Well, that’s perfectly normal behavior for an animal who’s NOCTURNAL. That’s right, hamsters are most active during evening and night, and snooze through most of the day. If you have a schedule that permits you to stay up into the wee hours to enjoy your pet, a hamster will fit nicely into your life. Please note that you probably shouldn’t set up the cage in a bedroom, as busy hamsters can be pretty noisy when digging, scratching and, yes, running on the exercise wheel.

It’s also important to understand that a hamster is not the type of pet who can be fed, watered and passively watched through the bars of the cage. Hamsters will need an hour of out-of-cage exercise in a safe, secure area every day. This isn’t an option, but a necessity for keeping your pet physically fit and mentally stimulated. Of course, you’ll need to hand-tame your hammy before these play sessions can begin; please see our section on HANDLING for helpful hints on the proper techniques.

A hamster may be perfect for you, but what about the other members of your family? It’s ideal if everyone is involved in the decision-making and caretaking. We realize that hamsters are one of the most popular pets, but because of their nocturnal nature and tendency to bite when mishandled, they are not appropriate for families with young children. ASPCA experts feel that children under the age of six should not be allowed to handle hamsters, and those over six may do so only under adult supervision.

If you decide a hamster’s the pet for you, we suggest getting yours from a reputable breeder or, better yet, adopting from a shelter or small-animal rescue group. Check out sites like www.petfinder.com for hamsters in need of good homes.

Bringing Your Hamster Home

Handling

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Greetings, new hamster caretaker! Bet you can’t wait to get to know all about your pet–and once he’s settled into his new digs, he’ll want to know all about you, too. If you’re patient and persistent, you’ll begin to earn his trust and affection by getting him used to being handled.

You may have heard that hamsters have a reputation for biting. It is true that of all the rodents kept as companion animals, a hamster is most likely to nip when mishandled or startled. Many new caretakers don’t understand that hamsters are nocturnal critters who spend most of the day sleeping. Most bites occur when hamsters are startled or awoken from a deep snooze.

The best time to hold your hand-taming sessions, then, is in the evening–when your hamster’s bright-eyed, well rested and ready to go about his “day.” Begin by slowly putting your hand in the cage and offering your pet his favorite treat. It’s also important to speak to him softly and encouragingly during these sessions, getting him used to your voice. As the days go by, he may come over to investigate, even stepping up on your hand. Now’s the time to stroke him gently or give him a little scratch.

When your hamster is comfortable being petted and accepting treats from you, you’re ready to start handling him. Using both hands, carefully scoop up your pet. Once he’s secure, hold him on your lap and gently stroke him. That wasn’t so bad, right?! Conduct sessions a couple of times daily for a few weeks. Each time, it will get easier–and maybe even enjoyable!–for all involved.

Once your pet has been hand-tamed, you’ll be able to let him exercise outside his cage every evening. These play sessions can keep your pet physically fit and mentally stimulated. You will definitely need to supervise, however.

In return for your hamster’s cooperation during handling, you must ensure that he is never picked up by someone who hasn’t mastered the correct technique. Because youngsters tend to unintentionally squeeze when holding a hamster, children under six should not be allowed to handle this species. ASPCA experts recommend that children over six should only do so when supervised by an adult.

Housing

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Your hamster’s cage is his home, sweet home–and it’s up to you to make sure it’s spacious and sturdy, and is kept as comfy and clean as possible. A well-made cage and accessories are the most important investments you’ll make for your pet.

When selecting a cage, keep in mind the golden rule of happy hammy housing. Syrian hamsters, also known as teddy bear hamsters, prefer their own turf and MUST live alone. Dwarf hamsters, on the other hand, like to live in pairs. When you know the species of your pet, you can properly pick out his or her–or their–digs. Either way, there will be a variety of cages to choose from.

A ten-gallon aquarium with a mesh cover makes a cozy, easy-to-clean home for hamsters of all kinds. Wire cages are great, too, just be sure that the space between the bars is small enough to prevent your pet from escaping. If you’ve decided that wire’s the way to go, be sure the bottom is plastic. Wire bottoms can be tough on sensitive hamster feet–and besides, the plastic will be a lot easier to keep clean. All-plastic cages with tubes, tunnels and hideaways are also an option–and are great fun for hamsters. However, they usually cost more and are much harder to maintain. Dwarf hamsters in particular may have trouble climbing up and down the tubes, but you can help your little guys out by putting a thin tree branch in the tubes for them to climb.

Take extra-special care when deciding on a location for the cage. Your hamster’s home should be situated away from direct sunlight and drafts. And remember, these fuzzy fellows are nocturnal, so you may want to think twice before setting up the cage in a bedroom–unless you don’t mind being awakened at 3 A.M. by a busy hamster hard at play. And since your pet will be sleeping during the day, he’ll do best if the cage is in a dimly lit area without too much noise or traffic.

Now it’s time to make your hamster’s house feel like a home. You’ll need to fill the bottom of the cage with bedding so your pet can engage in the all-time favorite hamster sports of digging and tunneling. ASPCA experts recommend aspen shavings, shredded paper or pelleted bedding available at pet supply stores. Steer clear of cedar and pine shavings, as their fumes can irritate your pet’s throat, lungs and nasal passages. You’ll also need to designate an area in the cage where your hamster can go to sleep and rest. Use a small flowerpot or a wooden box with an entrance hole–or buy one from a pet supply store.

Finally, add a few toys and your pet’s all set. Some hamsters are serious runners, so be sure yours has a solid metal or plastic exercise wheel. Empty cardboard tubes from paper towel and toilet paper make great hamster tunnels, and climbing frames and seesaws can keep your little guy well occupied. And remember that hamsters are big on comfort, so be sure to provide small pieces of paper towels or napkins that your pet can shred and use to make a nest.

To be a good hamster housekeeper, every day you’ll need to remove soiled bedding, droppings and any uneaten food that your pet has stored. Once weekly, remove and replace the bedding and scrub the bottom of the cage with hot, soapy water. Rinse away any soapy residue, and be sure everything’s dry before refilling with bedding material.

Understanding Your Hamster

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Admit it. You were first drawn to your hamster because he was just so…well, cute! Through a little reading and first-hand experience, you soon found out there’s much more to your hamster than meets the eye. He snoozes away most of the day, for one, and doesn’t like to be disturbed during his beauty sleep. Who exactly is this fuzzy little guy who’s come to live with you?

Do you know what kind of hamster you have? The most common are Syrian hamsters, also called golden hamsters. These guys have either short or long hair; the latter are known as teddy bear hamsters. No matter what you call members of this species, you must understand that they are SOLITARY animals who must live alone. Keeping two Syrians together is a serious no-no, as they will fight–and battles can be fierce. Dwarf hamsters, on the other hand, are best kept in pairs, and will get lonely on their own.

We’ve heard of many owners concerned because their hammy sleeps so much; others worry because their pets are up all night, obsessively running on the exercise wheel. They’re not sick–they’re just NOCTURNAL! Yup, that’s right–by nature, hamsters are most active during the evening and night, and sleep most of the day.

Your pet can and should be tamed, but you must do it on HIS time. More than any other companion rodents, hamsters are the most likely to bite. Most nips are received by owners who didn’t respect their pet’s inner timeclock and attempted to awake their sleeping hammy. Not a good idea! For tips on hand taming, check out our HANDLING section.

No, your hamster doesn’t have the mumps–but he does have roomy cheek pouches that can hold a surprisingly large amount of food when chockfull. You’ve probably seen your hammy stuffing extra food and treats in his pouches, only to unload his stash in a corner of the cage for future snacking. This behavior is perfectly normal–and downright charming, to some!

It may take a while for you to figure out what your hamster is trying to tell you. If you see him walking with stiff legs, tail straight up in the air, he’s likely scared of something. The happy hammy, on the other hand, may spontaneously pop up into the air or stretch contentedly.

You’ll probably notice that your hamster spends a lot of time grooming himself. This is a good sign–not only is he keeping clean and looking good, he feels comfortable enough to relax and get down to the job at hand. Be on the lookout for other cool hamster expressions and behaviors–and we’ll let you have the fun of figuring out what they all mean!

Taking Care of Your Hamster

Common Health Problems

by: ASPCA Ani-Med

If you provide your hamster with a proper diet, stay on top of your cage cleaning duties and keep him physically and mentally stimulated with safe toys, your pet should remain healthy throughout his life. But even these hardy little fellows can get sick–and because they are such, well, LITTLE fellows, it can be difficult to recognize symptoms of illness. Knowing what to look for can help you to help your hammy in case of a problem.

You’ve no doubt noticed your pet storing food in his cheek pouches. Par for the course–unless his cheeks seem unusually swollen or lumpy, especially on one side. Food, nesting material or other objects may have become IMPACTED in his POUCH. If left untreated, this could lead to an abscess. You can try cleaning the pouch yourself with warm water from an eyedropper, but the better, less stressful option is to have your pet’s veterinarian clean it out.

One of the most common hamster health problems, WET TAIL is a bacterial disease that causes severe diarrhea, caked feces around the anus and tail, loss of appetite and lethargy. Animals afflicted with this potentially lethal, highly contagious illness stay hunched over when moving, and may constantly cry out in pain. Time is of the essence, so it’s important to seek veterinary care immediately. Treatment involves antibiotics, fluids and supportive home care.

Some critters may like it hot, but not hamsters. These guys are highly susceptible to HEATSTROKE, so keep your pet’s cage out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources. Signs of heatstroke include lethargy, damp fur and unresponsiveness–which require immediate veterinary attention.

PARASITES of all sorts have bugged many a hamster. Hair loss, constant scratching and red, irritated skin are classic signs that your pet may be host to mites, fleas or lice. A trip to the vet’s is in order to clear up any such infestation.

Hamsters seem to be susceptible to RESPIRATORY PROBLEMS, especially the common cold–which they can catch from their human caretakers. A smart preventive measure is to simply keep your pet’s cage away from drafts, but if your little guy has a runny nose, watery eyes and the sniffles, he’s probably got a cold. Move his cage to a cozy room and add some extra bedding to keep him cozy. If his cold symptoms do not clear up in a couple of days, seek medical treatment.

If you notice any unusual symptoms in your pet, do not wait until a regularly scheduled check-up to consult the vet. Signs of illness, in addition to those discussed above, include dull-looking eyes, matted fur, weight loss, shaking and any sudden change in behavior. If you think your hamster is ill, contact the veterinarian immediately.

Nutritional Needs

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

He may be a little guy, but your hamster’s BIG on food. With their high metabolisms, these animal companions require about 10 percent of their body weight in food every day. In the wild, hamsters scarf down seeds, plants, fruit, and the occasional insect or earthworm. Your pet will do just fine on specially formulated hamster mix, supplemented every couple of days with fresh foods like fruits and vegetables.

Commercial hamster mix should make up the bulk of your hammy’s diet. Nutritionally complete, it’s readily available at pet supply stores, and consists of a variety of seeds, grains, dried veggies and nuts. Feed your pet every evening, when he’s most active and ready to start his routine. A sturdy ceramic food bowl will work well, and as you get to know your pet’s habits, you’ll learn how much he eats every day.

Every two or three days, you’ll need to supplement your pet’s diet with fresh foods. He’ll love veggies and fruits, such as carrots, broccoli, corn, bananas, grapes and apples. It’s best to gradually introduce fresh foods, as too many, too soon can cause diarrhea. Your omnivorous pet will also appreciate a bite of whole wheat bread, a nibble or two of cooked chicken, egg or tuna, or a few cashews, peanuts or other nuts. Never offer him raw kidney beans, onions, raw potato, rhubarb, or anything sugary. Be sure to wash all produce well–and remember, the name of the game is MODERATION. Half a handful of fresh foods is plenty.

Fresh, clean water should be available to your pet at all times. We recommend an upside-down bottle with a sipper tube that attaches to the side of the cage. You’ll need to rinse and refill it every day. Regularly check that the tube isn’t clogged, and be sure the bottle is easily accessible.

In getting to know your pet, you’ll soon find he has some unusual eating habits. If you notice he’s literally stuffing his face, don’t panic. Hamsters are known to carry food in their cheeks, which are actually roomy pouches. Once your pet has packed away his booty, he’ll unload his stash in a corner of the cage to save for a late-night snack. Unfortunately, these buried treasures can quickly spoil and become moldy (or smelly, for that matter!), so you’ll need to remove any uneaten food from your pet’s bedding on a daily basis.

And finally, do not become alarmed if you notice your pet eating his droppings. This is perfectly normal, and allows your hamster to obtain essential nutrients from the food that he wasn’t able to get on the first pass.

Play Time/Toys

By: ASPCA Ani-Med

Hamsters just want to have fun, and yours is no exception. He’s got a lot of excess energy to burn, so you’ll need to keep your pet busy to keep him happy. Play sessions with appropriate toys in and out of the cage will keep him in tip-top physical condition, too.

What’s the first step to ensuring that playtime is the best time of your hammy’s life? Do it on HIS time, please! As you’ve probably noticed, your little fellow is most active during the evening and night, and sleeps during the day. Commence playtime when he’s bright-eyed and alert–sometime in the evening. Disturbing a fast-asleep hamster is not a good move–and can result in mistrust on his part, plus a nip or two for you!

In addition to respecting your pet’s inner time clock, it’s important to provide toys and diversions that encourage him to do what comes naturally. Wild hamsters have been known to cover five miles a night as they gather food, so it’s no wonder their domestic counterparts enjoy burning up their energy on the exercise wheel. Make sure to get the solid metal or plastic kind without any rungs. Tiny tails and feet can easily get caught in runged wheels.

Wild hamsters spend a lot of time hanging out in secret hiding places, so you must provide yours with a cozy cave for napping and nesting. An empty flowerpot or a wooden box with an entrance hole will do just fine. And cardboard tubes, PVC pipes and plastic connecting tubes make great hamster tunnels.

We can’t stress enough how important it is to always provide something for your little guy to gnaw on. A hamster’s teeth grow continuously, so the animal needs to chew–and chew!–to keep his choppers worn down. Make sure your hammy has a twig or branch that hasn’t been treated with chemicals for this purpose. Pieces of hard dog biscuit are good too, and there are also a variety of chew toys available at the pet supply store.

Once you’ve hand-tamed your hamster, you should let him play outside of the cage, in a secure, enclosed area, while your supervise. Watch him closely and take care that he can’t get lost or hurt himself. Be sure to remove any electrical wires from the area, and anything else your curious hamster could, but shouldn’t, gnaw on.

Treats

by: ASPCA Ani-Med

Know how to make your hamster happy? Give him a bite–or two–of something special. While commercial hamster mix should make up the bulk of your pet’s diet, your little fellow will appreciate some variety every now and then. It’s up to you to make his snacktime both delicious and nutritious.

Every couple of days, treat your animal companion to some fruits and vegetables. He’ll especially love carrots, broccoli, corn, bananas, spinach, grapes, berries, apples and fresh herbs like basil and parsley, but you may need to experiment a little to find your pet’s favorites. No potatoes, onions, rhubarb or raw kidney beans, please, and if you offer cherries, plums or other stone fruits, be sure to remove the pits first.

If you’ve never given your hammy fresh foods before, it’s best to start out gradually. Too much, too soon can cause diarrhea. And keep in mind that a little goes a long way–your hamster has a tiny tummy, so the name of the game is MODERATION. Half a handful of fresh foods is plenty.

Your omnivorous pet may also enjoy a bite of whole wheat bread, a nibble or two of cooked egg, tuna or chicken, or a few pistachios, cashews or other nuts every couple of days. We know that many caretakers treat their little guys to sunflower seeds, but we’ve also heard tell of one too many hamsters addicted to these extremely high-fat seeds. Go easy on these, please, as hamsters can quickly pack on weight. Topping the no-no list are alcohol, chocolate, chips, sweets, and sticky foods, such as toffee and peanut butter, that could cause your pet to choke.

Looking for some more healthy treats for your pet? Chew on this! Small bits of dog biscuit an pieces of untreated tree branches and twigs will help keep your hammy’s teeth worn down AND give him something fun to do. Do not offer him wood from cedar, apricot, cherry, and peach trees, as they are toxic.

If you notice that your pet is literally stuffing his face with all his treats, don’t panic! Hamsters are known to carry food in their cheek pouches. Once he’s grabbed all the booty he can, he’ll unload his stash in a corner of the cage for a late-night snack. These buried treasures can quickly spoil, so be sure to remove any uneaten food from your pet’s bedding on a daily basis.

We at the Dublin Animal Hospital trust that this information will help build a bond between you and your pet, and that our pet care FAQ pages will continue to be a resource to you, and for your Hampster’s happiness and health for years to come.